Gender Differences in the Desert

In class today we talked a little about Sapolsky’s overgeneralizations when comparing desert and rainforest cultures.  One of the things that struck me most was the gender differences we discussed, i.e. women in desert societies were treated worse than women in rainforest societies.  My question is whether or not this treatment of women is really related to desert vs. rainforest, or if there are other underlying factors that affect women’s roles.  When this topic came up, my immediate thought was Athens and Sparta.  These cultures do not specifically fit into the rainforest vs. desert dichotomy, but they do fit the ascribed roles of these locations (gentle vs. militaristic).  This made me wonder if maybe the treatment of women is not determined by location but rather their society’s military orientation.  The variables of location and military orientation may be confounded and women in deserts are perhaps not treated they way they are because they live in a desert, but rather because their societies have a militaristic orientation.

I also call into question the idea that women in desert cultures are treated worse.  They are given more responsibility/manual labor tasks, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.  More tasks can mean more autonomy.  The women in Sparta had more political power and more control/power within their family structure, whereas women in Athens were treated as fragile figures and had no power or say in their society.

Overall, my observation is that the dichotomy Sapolsky sets up between desert and rainforest may not be as simple as he makes it appear.  The resulting cultural characteristics he ascribes to societies may not actually be due to the location (it’s the militaristic orientation, not the desert), and the resulting assumptions about the quality of these characteristics may not be entirely accurate (more responsibilities may actually be a good thing).


One thought on “Gender Differences in the Desert

  1. Great points, Kelsey. Do keep in mind (everyone) that Sapolsky didn’t invent the desert v. forest classifications. Anthropologists have been studying culture through this lens for decades (and continue to do so) and he draws heavily on their work to make his points. He in fact has indicated his interest in anthropologists who remained generalists. So the generalizations are transparent and purposeful.


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